Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon did not invent the idea that the Native Americans were offspring of ancient Israelites and part of the Lost Tribes that Jesus visited. In 1830 it was a very common idea, a fact represented by Ethan Smith’s View of the Hebrews and James Adair’s History of the American Indians, which was published in 1775. Robert Calderwood’s Voices from the Dust is a contemporary tomb that explores the Spanish Chroniclers, and how they found evidence of Christianity among the Native Americans in Central and South America, where the Catholic Church destroyed and suppressed those histories as to maintain their monopoly on Christianity, as it were, in the 15th Century. Adair borrows heavily from this at-the-time oral history, which in turn, was expanded by Ethan Smith. It has since fallen out of fashion.
If evidence were to re-surface that were to vindicate these earlier views in a much more dramatic way, the polemics could switch on a dime. Joseph could be accused of capitalizing on the popular theories of the day—simply by jumping on the bandwagon. Proving Hebrew origins among Native Americans does nothing for the apologist. It’s almost nonsensical to pursue it as apologetics or to debunk because it proves nothing about the Book of Mormon’s truth, other than that it’s now possible. Plenty of fiction is based on actual locations and people.
Nevertheless, it’s the absence of Israelite evidence that is the accusation of the day. The anachronisms present (horses, swords, steel, etc.) could be dismissed as semantics, translation mechanics—as discussed before through a loose translation process, either in terms of 19th century creep in Joseph’s linguistics or imaginary “automatic writing” that employs situations that exist inside an author’s mind. But we still then have the unapparent general lack of a civilization that matches the Lehite colony’s Middle East origin.
The problem with the lack of evidence of anachronistic items is the sandbox theory of civilization. It depends largely on how large your digging area is relative to the size of your target group. If the sandbox is the size of say, North and South America, and the civilization is relatively small and extinct, the likelihood of finding anything that ties back to the civilization by digging in the sandbox is going to be almost impossible. The same can be said with DNA evidence of existing ancestors of Native Americans. If the Lehite colony was only a small sub-section of a larger group, then the lack of DNA evidence isn’t all that surprising. But DNA evidence being so damning rests on the idea that Mormon leaders have typically allowed for a much larger civilization footprint in the Book of Mormon. So, then the arguments rest on their credentials as historical prognostications as prophets, which gets us where we can have some agreement. The lack of DNA evidence is damning when it comes to disproving the mass of natives having any Hebrew tie. While some note there has been DNA that ties to west Eurasia but it comes from an earlier era. It doesn’t prove Book of Mormon populations, but it does prove that we keep discovering new things that were previously undiscovered.
So, let’s review some of the damning presupposed facts:
The mass population of Native Americans today show no DNA tie to Hebrew origins in the needed time frame, but to an Asian one that traces to an ancient land bridge
There are no steel, horses, elephants, “cureloms,” wheat, silk, sheep, and . . . (at least in the necessary time frame)
No proof of the large cities needed to create such a civilization mentioned
No proof of Hebrew of Egyptian writing on artifacts left behind
The Smithsonian has stated that there is no evidence of any culture that fits the Book of Mormon narrative.
And then there are some supporting ones, or at least facts that give wiggle room for possibilities:
The land-route favored in the Book of Mormon that the Lehites travelled seems to fit the Arabian Peninsula very well, with the needed turn at a site currently called Nahom, and the land Bountiful fitting a very green area that is now being excavated on the Arabian Peninsula
Although there is no proof, there are some artifacts that support a Hebrew origin in North America, such as the Bat Creek Stone. Most have been debunked as fake, but this has been usually leveled at face value with little testing done to showcase the fakery.
Bat Creek Stone, Fact or Fake?
The native American Miqmaq tribe in New England has a language that is very close to the characters written on the Anthon transcript, but perhaps they were the basis of the invented language. Mixed results here.
Evidence of mounds in North America that may have been used for defense fortifications, some with Hebrew cultural references in Ohio. Fits the need for cities and wars.
The Smithsonian has unknown numbers of artifacts from early American history and anthropology they have supposedly hidden or destroyed . . . a well-known conspiracy fact. Before the destructions or coverups, however, the Smithsonian chronicled the evidence in 1848.
There is also the curious tale of the Michigan Mystic Symbol and the stone clay tablets that were found in 1940. At one time they were proved to be forgeries, but since then, there has been some new work that shows multiple authors and consistent language.
Of course, evidence of Christianity in America does not make the Book of Mormon true. Coptic Christians could have established a colony in North America while hundreds of years later, Joseph Smith was making a fraudulent religion based on Christianity in North America. Both things happening could be pure coincidence.
The argument concerning pre-Columbian civilization by the Smithsonian in North America can be traced to efforts by the early American government to suppress such evidence as to ensure Americans that Native Americans were seen as savages and that there was no need for civilized treatment. The political efforts culminated during the fever pitch of the Manifest Destiny days. Evidence of any civilization was quietly suppressed and minimized.
American Progress, chromolithograph print, c. 1873American Progress, chromolithograph print, c. 1873, after an 1872 painting of the same title by John Gast.
There is also immense political pressure to ensure that Native Americans be seen as the “first settlers,” going back before man was civilized at least to the Ice Age. If they are just another line of conquerors in a long list of conquerors that were in turn vanquished, it would undermine their claims of first inheritance. There would therefor be pressure to ensure that America is not seen as a genocidal nation against another civilized people. Examples of the Turkish extermination of Armenians and cover-ups in the early 20th century are a good comparative study.
Regardless of the reasons for suppressing the history of America early on, the history of the Book of Mormon remains a part of the later arguments and have really driven the discussion by those such as the late Michael Coe to debunk Mormon concepts of a pre-Columbian Hebrew colony. How can this be viewed?
Scenario 1 (Secular Idea): There is no evidence of “Lehite” or “Jaredite” civilization in the Book of Mormon as can be determined by the text. It is the smoking gun to Joseph Smith’s fraud.
Scenario 2: There is some evidence but it’s all coincidence or a victim of confirmation bias. Same as scenario 1
Scenario 3 (The Secular Idea IF Hebrew historicity is ever verified): There is some evidence, and there may be some good evidence, but if it turns out to be true, Joseph Smith was either piggybacking on earlier understandings that could turn out in the long-run to be true. He merely capitalized on then current anthropological knowledge that was suppressed and could resurface due to new discoveries or new techniques.
Scenario 4 (It doesn't Matter Idea): There may be some evidence, but no amount of evidence will ever prove the Book of Mormon true. The text doesn’t give us enough. There are no language primers to use. The Anthon transcript itself could be a faked copy of native languages in the Northeast or an authentic document, but unless you can tie it to a Book of Mormon context with a primer, it's impossible.
Notice that all four scenarios don’t prove the Book of Mormon true. It doesn’t prove Joseph Smith a prophet. Aside from finding an artifact that could be tied to a man named Nephi or Moroni today (and you have the language primer to do this), it cannot be done. So maybe we are all barking up the wrong tree.
Location, Location, Location
Early on, both the text of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith described the land of the Lehites being in North America. Joseph would comment and describe areas, such as the Zelph mound, which would contextualize the events to North America on the Eastern Seaboard. By the time you get to Nauvoo, a new book had been published showcasing massive cities in Central America. Several publications in the Times and Seasons in Nauvoo, which often carried Joseph’s name, theorized that the events of the Book of Mormon were further south. Since then, the LDS Church has had a love affair with Central America. Books, archaeologists, and tours have been produced, centered on the region of Central America. Other Mormons believed the Book of Mormon events to span the entire hemisphere. Only lately has some of the scholarship and theories returned its focus to the original North American sites, particularly in the Ohio River valley region. The civilization dates match up better, even though the civilization records aren’t as impressive as one sees in the ancient ruins of the Mayan, nor do they correspond as well with the geography mentioned in the Book of Mormon.
While much of the debate centers on geographical descriptions from the text, others focus on the size of the Lehite colony. Depending on context, one can make a case for just about anywhere. Some have even wondered if it's in Malaysia. Most of the strongest arguments against Book of Mormon evidence are tied to the Meso-American setup, where Mormons have spent the longest amount of time digging, and not much has been found in terms of a Hebrew presence. Some of the anachronisms, like swords and horses, and Hebrew evidence, show up farther north, but not in Central America. And . . . like many of the debates we see about the Church, the arguments center around where some “prophet or apostle” thought the lands should be, and people try to pin down the wrongness of that opinion on some sort of straw man argument that centers around that. We see the same arguments with DNA which hang on whether the Lehites are the “principle” ancestors of the Native Americans, or just “among” the ancestors. While Joseph Smith said a little about the proposed lands of the Book of Mormon, he doesn't give us enough. Thus, we're left with an unsatisfying answer of not knowing where these things took place, although it is fun to speculate. Basically, we’re left with an unsatisfying conclusion that you must find truth within the meaning of the text itself.
Parables and Allegories
The Bible is not an inerrant history of the world. It’s been tampered with by too many men who wanted to use it for the sake of their own power. The themes in the Bible work, and within the pages one finds powerful allegories, even if they aren’t exactly as portrayed. Jesus used fake stories to prove His points, as parables, so perhaps some of the Book of Mormon is constructed in the same way. True, there’s Mormon, angel Moroni, and visions and this entire narrative that is given to Joseph Smith. But can we be open enough to the idea of extra-dimensional beings giving a storied narrative to a young boy to provide context to some profound ideas contained therein? If the production of the tome is based partly on Joseph’s own imagination, partly from inspired beings, partly from a 19th Century context, can we live with that? Can we live with a mixture of some of it being historical and some of it being allegorical, particularly the stories which go back thousands of years? Could they be subject to the same mythical creep as the early Old Testament and meddling from a Book of Mormon version of scribal Deuteronomists?
Let’s be clear that attempts to push the construction into plagiarism territory are hard to grasp. Those that make such claims usually throw all sorts of ideas against the wall to see what will stick, whether it’s Madagascar geography, Captain Kidd juvenile literature, the Book of Napoleon, Northeastern geographical names, or the Late War. It certainly can’t be ALL these books, and no one book works very convincingly as THE source. Rather, most of the comparisons made usually are more likely products of coincidence, linguistic genealogy, with Biblical prose as the common denominator. Yes, it’s possible Joseph Smith saw some African geography (Moroni) in a book and it gave him a good idea for his angel’s name. It’s also just as likely that he made up the name and it draws from the same linguistic genealogy as the geography in question. If an angel was named Moroni and he has some Hebrew linguistics that are tied to his name, the old-world connection could have migrated in another direction and manifested itself that way. If one wants to employ Occam’s razor, they will find the most satisfying answer to be in made-up names that coincidentally shares a heritage with similar names elsewhere, simply due to the early American Biblical cultural ties. But we should be open to the middle ground here, considering a wide array on influences that produce a book so profound that it has a heavenly mark.
Curiously enough, there is a movement that is attempting to do the same with with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. If people can see Tolkien as a seer, Joseph certainly fits better. Some claim that Tolkien channeled history, true ideas, and even people, married it to en element of fantasy, but essentially, created a large geo-theocratic parable with inspiration from the other side. Some have even tried to marry the two works. But the point is that there is no reason to throw out the Book of Mormon because some or maybe even most of the stories are steeped in myth or parable. Like the Bible, we can envision some of the characters being literal, with the surrounding stories carrying a sort of lore that may not be entirely accurate. We can also view them as allegorical. Both work.
From Studying ABOUT the Book of Mormon to STUDYING the Book of Mormon
Laying aside the wrapping paper and logistics that surround the book, most arguments never attempt to get at the heart of what the book is saying. It’s here that the rewards are more focused. Thus, we need more book reports.
One of the strongest supports for authenticity of the book come from word print studies and authorial research on the different voices that exist within the book. There appears to be several different authors who use different writing patterns to convey their messages. One doesn’t have to look very long to see the more complex prose of Alma the Younger, than say, Nephi. But even Alma is reworked as an abridged voice from Mormon. It’s odd that if one were to produce a book, one has this setup of an abridgment with a group of stories that are narrated and a small group of authors that aren’t. Then you add in this side-story of the Jaredites. This disjointedness is what makes it more compelling, in some ways. A novel would read better, and not be leveled as “chloroform in print,” as Mark Twain once mused. It may be perhaps harder to fake purposeful disjointedness.
Then you have the mystery of the Small Plates of Nephi. Some say that this was an attempt from Joseph Smith to minimize the impact of what would happen were he to attempt to “re-translate” the first 116 pages and then have those that stole the manuscript to produce the first copy and show the difference. If that crossed Joseph’s mind and he was trying to defraud people, wouldn’t he simply just go from where he left off to minimize that impact? But Joseph didn’t do that. He produced a similar story that he claims was told in the first person from within the plates very similar to what he produced earlier. For whatever purpose, the Small Plates many find to be very valuable and easier to read in the first person, as opposed to a abridged Mormonized narrative in the rest of the book. The Small Plates gives powerful parables of journeys, seeking God under the duress of the unknown, and examples of how to obtain the Lord’s will. The most important part, often derided, is the inclusion of the Isaiah chapters. Basically, lifted from the Biblical Isaiah, the beauty in their inclusion is in the narrative. Nephi provides a translation rubric for the text, something Isaiah has needed for centuries. It opens up and allows Isaiah to breathe. Several of the authors in the Book of Mormon, including Jesus Christ, quote from Isaiah, or borrow allegorically from Isaiah, weaving off traditional Christian narratives but including new ones that delve into deep theology and eschatology. In many ways, the Book of Mormon can be said to be an essential companion to Isaiah. That’s quite an undertaking!
The Book of Mormon is also a love letter to the people of Lehi. The futuristic themes of a remnant are very similar to the Biblical themes of a remnant of Israel, both of which have some sort of part to play in the final chapters of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, which can be read either in terms of a traditional apocalypse or of mankind waking up a new type of existence. The book tells about who gets to help with the transition.
With the Book of Mormon, it’s best to start at the end to understand the beginning in order to describe the overall arc. It has many endings. Mormon is the principle author so it’s his story. He writes about how his people will have a huge part to play in the future, which is good because they have screwed up, as it seems, all the “chosen” people of God are wanting to do in any scripture. You understand how they are led away from destruction to be saved, only to fall and repent, fall again, and end up in destruction. The nature of the cycle of civilization is probably one of the favorite themes of the Book of Mormon. In our world, we often get caught up in the Hegelian/Marxist narrative of history being progressive, that mankind always gets better, and that at some point, we will evolve into a sort of socialist utopia. The Book of Mormon is much less optimistic about that, or in fine, it projects a longer view. The iterations it takes for people to wake up and be good to each other are much more than realized. It rarely happens with the next hope and change election. Usually it’s after a serious catastrophe. It takes serious reflection on what went wrong, humility, contemplation, faith in doing better, and struggling to make it work the next time, even if the next time is likely to fail as well.
The Book of Mormon could be viewed as a tragedy, but there is a subtext that is often missing. At one point, the iterative nature of civilization concludes with a visitation from the divine, even Jesus Christ. Jesus, which is often used as materialist evidence of His existence and divinity, but there’s more to it than that. Jesus presence translates the community into 200 years of peace—and that’s scripturally rare. It’s a gem in that showcases a people that actually “get it,” if even for a short period of time. The Bible offers us a glimpse into Enoch’s people, but without the same doctrinal setup. We can lament that it was a short time-frame, but for those that experienced it, it was certainly a happy ending. With great understanding and great knowledge comes an opportunity to rise to the ultimate level and transcend to something greater, or to sink into oblivion. We see that same cycle at the beginning of the world with the City of Enoch and the end of the World, with the promise of Zion. Thus, history is cyclical, perhaps chiasmic.
The Book of Mormon is written with the idea that Mormon saw our day in vision and that he prepared the stories to best teach lessons to his own people, who would own up to the book someday and use it to create that end-of-times scenario of a Zion society. This incorporates some simple but profound teachings that correlate to the doctrines of Christ in the New Testament—streamlined and digestible, simplified and drawn out all at the same time. These ideas include:
God being no respecter of persons
Sacrificing a broken heart and a contrite spirit as an act of faith
Faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ
Repenting of your own sins
Receiving the gospel through the ordinance of baptism under those approved by God
Receiving the baptism of Fire and the Holy Ghost—the purging of sin
Receiving a better hope to continue in this process
Practicing real charity, giving to the poor, helping the needy, sacrificing your own wants for others needs
Receiving the Savior (enduring to the end) by piercing the veil and become holy and pure
No Priest Craft No large and spacious worship buildings needed
Discernment of truth by defining what is good as leading someone to have faith in Jesus Christ
Discernment of truth by learning how to recognize the Holy Ghost
The goodness of sexual fidelity
Heavenly messengers often come to normal guys who aren’t in the hierarchy (Abinidi, Samuel the Lamanite) Sometimes they ask the Church leaders (priests of Noah) to repent.
God’s authority can only be controlled upon the principles of righteousness, not ordination
The relationship between Jesus and God the Father is explained better
How to perform ordinances like baptism and the sacrament.
How to deal with people who are sinning in the church—i.e. worthiness in only defined by a repentant spirit. If you must condemn someone, it needs to be transparent and fair.
How to receive a repentant person into the church—immediately, no two-year trial period necessary
Miracles being a byproduct of righteousness. If you don’t see them around you, then there is no righteousness. More repentance is needed.
The process of God sending messengers through angels and prophets is explained.
This is certainly not exhaustive but gives a good example of what is taught. Furthermore, the stories of war and captivity have some great political ties to our day—which they should if a prophet that writes in the book sees our day. One would expect him to cherry-pick stories and warnings that would relate to “our” day, certainly spanning the 19th through the 21st Centuries. Curiously enough, if one were to analyze the conflicts in the Book of Mormon there are not only some striking parallels, but also some progressive historical situations that mirror each other that reach into the 21st Century:
The progressive nature of government corruption
Traditional warfare morphing into non-traditional warfare with clandestine secret combinations and terrorism
The declining fortunes of the Nephites to win wars as time goes on—like America’s inability to resolve war conflicts over time.
The striking parallels between the Gadianton Robbers and today’s enemies—a mirroring of terrorism
The assassinations and attempted assassinations of political leaders.
The eventual dissolution of the Nephite government into factions. Could this be our fate?
In many ways, the Book of Mormon seems to be warning of our own destiny if we don’t change our ways. It’s a cautionary tale.
Finally, the Book gives Jesus Christ in all His glory. It’s like the sequel to the New Testament in many ways, a companion piece. Yes, some of it may be accused of being lifted from the New Testament, but much of what is attributed in Christ’s own words in 3 Nephi are entirely new ideas, such as the interplay between the Gentiles and the House of Israel—a subject Christ touches on three times and can be found nowhere else in the Bible. For a fake young prophet to do that requires some rare boldness that’s a little noteworthy.
Book of Mormon Conclusion
Certainly, there are factual flaws. No doubt. But there are also stories, analogies, and other facts that are hard to ascribe to the simple model of Joseph Smith being a mustache-twisting plagiarizing fraud. Many are content to the let the mystery or its origin weigh upon them as the teachings distill upon the soul.